Law & Courts

Teacher May Lead Bible Lessons at Her Own School, Court Rules

By Caroline Hendrie — September 22, 2004 2 min read

In a decision that legal experts are calling a first, a federal appeals court has held that a teacher can lead after-school Bible classes in the school where she works.

Barbara Wigg, a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher in the Sioux Falls, S.D., school district, sued last year after school officials told her she could no longer take part in meetings of the Good News Club, which included some of her students. The after-school group is one of nearly 1,750 run in public schools nationwide by Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Christian evangelical organization based in Warrenton, Mo.

By leading a club meeting at the school in the first hour after school, the district argued, Ms. Wigg ran afoul of a policy of the 19,600-student district that barred employees from participating in religious activities on school grounds.

The district argued the policy was needed to avoid the perception of government-endorsed religion, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. But Ms. Wigg countered that the district had violated her First Amendment right to free speech, because she was leading the club on her own time.

A federal district court in Sioux Falls split the difference, saying that Ms. Wigg could take part in Good News Club meetings at other public schools in Sioux Falls, although not at the one where she taught. Both sides appealed portions of the ruling.

In a unanimous ruling on Sept. 3, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, came down wholly on the teacher’s side. It held that the district must allow her to take part in the meetings, even at her own school.

“Does a school’s concern for avoiding accusations of establishment of religion justify inhibiting the free speech and association rights of employees after work hours when the relevant activity takes place on school property?” the ruling says. “In this case, we do not believe so.”

Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association, last week called the ruling troubling. He said it muddied the waters on an issue already “fraught with legal and political peril for the nation’s schools.”

“One of the relatively few clear and simple guideposts we have in this area of law is the widely understood rule that teachers don’t get involved with students in religious activities on school premises,” he said.

The NSBA filed a friend-of-the-court-brief in the case, which was joined by the American Association of School Administrators as well as the school boards’ associations in Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. The 8th Circuit includes those states, as well as Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Dakota.

Meanwhile, the head of a national organization that represented Ms. Wigg hailed the ruling, saying that “public school teachers across America have been waiting with anticipation for this decision.”

“Teachers who desire to take off their official teaching hat and put on a private one, step down the hall after the last bell, and participate in religious clubs have been finally liberated by this court’s decision,” Mathew D. Staver, the president of the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, said in a statement.

A lawyer for the Sioux Falls district said last week that it would ask the full 8th Circuit appeals court to rehear the case.

Events

School & District Management Live Event EdWeek Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Head of School
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
AIM Academy
Head of School
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
AIM Academy
Superintendent, Coeur d'Alene Public Schools
Coeur D'Alene, Idaho
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School

Read Next

Law & Courts Accused Texas School Shooter to Remain at State Hospital
Doctors say the student accused of fatally shooting 10 people at a Texas high school in 2018 remains incompetent to stand trial.
1 min read
Santa Fe High School freshman, Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses representing victims in front the school in Santa Fe, Texas on May 21, 2018.
Santa Fe High School freshman, Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses representing victims in front the school in Santa Fe, Texas on May 21, 2018.
Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP
Law & Courts School District Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Scope of Transgender Student Rights
A Virginia district appeals a ruling in the case involving Gavin Grimm's effort to use a restroom consistent with his gender identity.
3 min read
Transgender student Gavin Grimm challenged a policy of the Gloucester County, Va., school board that barred him from using the men's restroom. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Transgender student Gavin Grimm challenged a policy of the Gloucester County, Va., school board that barred him from using the men's restroom. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Kristen Zeis/The Daily Press via AP
Law & Courts 3 Years Later, Parkland School Shooting Trial Still in Limbo
It's been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into a Florida high school, killed 17 people, and wounded 17 others.
4 min read
Magaly Newcomb, right, comforts her daughter Haley Newcomb, 14, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla on Feb. 18, 2018. It’s been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Magaly Newcomb, right, comforts her daughter Haley Newcomb, 14, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla on Feb. 18, 2018. It’s been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Law & Courts Judge: District Had No Duty to Flag Danger From Student in Parkland Shootings
A Florida judge said the Broward County school district cannot be held liable for failing to predict actions that were beyond its control.
2 min read
Law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP